Since most of us have made our way back into the classroom over the last three days, I thought I would start off a discussion about something that concerns many (most?) instructors, especially those who are new to the classroom (whether in general or to a new one in particular): the issue of authority and, especially, how one establishes it early in the semester with a new set of students.
A large part of the reason that I am considering this issue is because I just used my favorite ice-breaker in all four of my 105 courses, the one that I described in detail in a blog post a year ago: First day of class: Breaking the ice.
For those not interested in wading through it, the quick version is as follows: On the first day of class I show up early and sit among the students, causing them to think I am one too. Then, when it’s time to begin, I stand up and introduce myself, which invariably freaks out and thoroughly amuses the students.
I discussed the activity with a few colleagues during the first day meetings and the response was invariably the same, i.e. some variation of “That is so cool. And I would never do it!” I’ve generally had that response from very different people at two separate institutions and in online discussions with other teachers and I completely get why it exists.
One of the biggest issues with this ice-breaker is that it not just breaks the separation between student and instructor, but it does so right at the beginning of the very first class, when the initial face-to-face interaction occurs. That can, in theory, limit the instructor’s chances of establishing the appropriate tone for and authority in the classroom.
I use the phrase “in theory” because, I’ve personally never found this ice-breaker to undermine or limit my authority. In fact, I’ve had some students tell me subsequently that the fact that I open the semester in that way serves to indicate that I am very comfortable in the classroom and actually provides a greater sense of authority. I’m also of the opinion that the fragility of authority is, at least some of the time, more in the minds of the instructor than the student. Right now, most of our students are in their first semester of college, worried about how the university functions and what they need to do. The instructor is the one with all the answers (or so they think), the one they can always turn to. In their eyes, authority is a given. This is why it takes weeks for me to break them of saying “Professor” and “Mister” or, in some cases, even “Sir.” Even more experienced students, I think, are more acutely aware of the ways in which authority lies in the instructor’s hands than we often are. With apologies to Ash (Army of Darkness), “Good. Bad. I’m the guy with the grades.”
This is, of course, not to indicate that I think seeking to establish authority early on is a bad thing or that challenges to authority from students do not occur early in the semester. Plus I have a substantial privilege that helps me in this area. I may be a little guy (as I’ve joked, if you’re a 5 ft 4 inch Indian guy teaching English to Americans and you’re worried about your authority, you might be in the wrong job!), but I am a guy—and a loud and confident one. Gender has a major role to play in the classroom when it comes to issues of authority (see Tavya Jackson’s Appearance (and Gender) in the Classroom) and I do have an unearned advantage in this regard, which makes it much easier for me to be cavalier about issues of authority.
To make a long story short, I shared my approach and initial thoughts because I am very curious about other people’s thoughts on this subject. How important do you think it is to establish authority early in the semester? What do you do (or avoid) to establish authority? What roles do things like gender, age, etc. play in your authority?